Emerging technology capabilities—and threats—are rapidly changing the way government agencies work, from the federal to local level. Though new technologies have immense potential to transform the way agencies serve citizens, government workforces often lack the specific technical skills to make that promise a reality.
While addressing this gap will require targeted hiring, governments may also develop strategies to upskill their more experienced employees and leverage their invaluable understanding of public sector missions, needs, and processes. Investment in the public sectors’ strongest asset—its people—is the clearest path toward preparing government workforces for tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities.
Why Government Tech Jobs Are in Demand
While the public sector already relies on digital capabilities for many key functions, digital transformation remains in its early stages for many agencies and government organizations. From moving more functions online to creating innovative defense projects, demand for IT and engineering skills will only rise across all levels of government as technology continues to advance rapidly.
According to a 2020 survey by FedScoop and WorkScoop, federal government IT leaders are seeking the following areas of expertise to the greatest extent:
- Cloud networking and engineering
- Cloud application development
- Artificial intelligence
- Data analysis
- Enterprise architecture and engineering
- Machine learning
Survey respondents also identified the need to develop soft skills among their employees, including:
- Critical thinking
- People management
- Emotional intelligence
And as cyber threats from state and non-state actors grow, cybersecurity skills remain in demand across all segments of the IT workforce.
Why Government Tech Jobs Are Hard to Fill
The American public sector comprises 24 million jobs (or 15% of the workforce). But its unique requirements and constraints have led to a significant shortage of experienced IT and engineering professionals.
Currently, nearly two-thirds of federal IT employees are over 40 years old, and state and local governments share similar demographics. While these employees bring a wealth of relevant experience, the most seasoned and experienced personnel often lack training and skills in the areas most critical for technology-driven government transformation.
Only 2.7% of federal IT workers were under the age of 29 in 2020, pointing to hiring challenges that make it difficult to fill those gaps with new talent. Many factors have contributed to this issue, and public sector leaders should consider the role of each within their talent strategies.
1. Perceived discrepancies in salaries between the private and public sectors
Conventional wisdom holds that working in the public sector comes at the price of a lower salary. However, data shows that actual salary differences are minimal, and emerging programs designed to recruit professionals for in-demand roles (such as cybersecurity) are designing offers to compete with those from the private sector. Efforts to highlight the public sectors’ extensive investments in employees’ growth may also help alleviate candidates’ worries.
2. Lengthy hiring processes
As all government employees know, lengthy hiring processes also pose a challenge. Federal hiring takes on average about five times as long as hiring in the private sector, in part because many positions require security clearances. And similar challenges persist in most states and localities. While background check requirements are unlikely to change in the near term, public sector employers can reduce applicants’ concerns by communicating clearly about the hiring process and providing regular updates throughout.
3. Less desirable or less dense locations
For state and local governments in particular, location can also pose a challenge. Less dense states face the challenge of a smaller pool of engineers and IT professionals looking for government jobs. Plus, cities and localities that aren’t perceived as desirable to young professionals may struggle to compete with major tech hubs like the San Francisco Bay Area.
However, the increase in remote work over the past two years may partially mitigate this issue for agencies willing to be flexible with employees’ locations and cast a broader net in their candidate searches.
Upskilling to Fill Government IT and Engineering Jobs
In a 2020 survey by FedScoop and WorkScoop, government IT leaders listed upskilling employees as among the most effective strategies for addressing the skills gap. The public sector’s hiring challenges and demographically older workforce make it an excellent candidate for talent development programs that expand on existing skills or train employees for entirely new roles.
Additionally, investing in employees’ growth is a powerful tool for morale and retention. According to LinkedIn Learning, 94% of employees say they would stay in their role longer if their organization invested in their development and growth. Opportunities to learn on the job can be a boon for recruitment.
Despite their clear benefits, fewer than 40% of respondents to the 2020 FedScoop survey had utilized training programs within the prior two years to address skill gaps on their teams. Budget and time were significant constraining factors, but nearly half of respondents also noted that they lacked a clear vision of what skills were needed. This suggests that additional guidance from agency leadership and educational partners could improve participation in upskilling programs.
Agencies looking to upskill government engineers should take the following considerations into account.
1. Identify and prioritize the most important skills.
Since survey responses indicate that many public-sector IT leaders lack clarity on the skills their organizations need to thrive, agency leadership must take a more active role in identifying priority skills. Conducting a skills gap analysis can help leaders find important grounding information. Resources from the Office of Personnel Management and other federal agencies can also help leaders develop a roadmap for addressing those gaps.
2. Identify employees with transferable skills.
IT leaders should next assess their existing workforce, inventory existing skill sets, and identify employees who have a base level of skills in certain areas. For example, employees may be well-versed in traditional networking but not cloud networks. Or they may need to develop new skills to manage the technology required by a distributed workforce. These employees will likely be good candidates for upskilling programs.
3. Incentivize upskilling in the workplace.
Since mobility is traditionally more limited in the public sector, it’s essential that employees see clear incentives for learning new skills and taking on new responsibilities. Managers, for example, should work with employees to identify new positions within existing structures that they may be able to move into with targeted skills development.
4. Enroll employees in courses or training programs.
While some tech skills can be learned on the job, many skill sets within IT and engineering require more formal training. University classes or targeted courses (like those Emeritus offers) can prepare employees to take on new challenges by developing both hard and soft skills.
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State governments have already seen a high rate of success with customized training programs tailored to meet the needs of specific groups of employees. A Deloitte analysis of data from the Workforce Opportunity and Innovation Act (a federal funding program aimed at upskilling public sector workers) found that employment rates and salaries increased among participants in these custom programs.
5. Follow up and track progress.
As with any other project, leaders should set clear metrics for outcomes and performance. Tracking what works and what doesn’t and sharing that information with other agencies and organizations can help further develop a solid public-sector IT base that can compete with the private sector in terms of both talent and outcomes.
Ultimately, while the public sector’s unique structure presents certain obstacles to building a strong base of talent in IT and engineering, concerted efforts to upskill employees can help prepare government agencies at all levels to provide public service for the future, while also improving employee recruitment, retention, and satisfaction.
By Rachel Hastings
Are you working to develop a public-sector upskilling program? Get in touch with Emeritus Enterprise to learn about our employee training programs.